Review: ‘Dinner with Friends’ at Everyman Theatre

Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season, opened to an enthusiastic full house at Everyman on Friday. The play gives Director (and self-declared foodie) Vincent M. Lancisi the chance to combine two of his passions: theatre and cooking. It’s a recipe for yet another excellent production at Everyman Theatre.

Beth Hylton, M. Scott McLean, Megan Anderson, and Danny Gavigan in 'Dinner with Friends.' Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Beth Hylton, M. Scott McLean, Megan Anderson, and Danny Gavigan in ‘Dinner with Friends.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Dinner with Friends tells the story of two couples who have been longtime best friends. When one of the couples breaks up, it causes distress in the relationships between each of the four people. As Lancisi describes it, “The heart of this play questions the unspoken expectations surrounding long-standing relationships. What happens when life doesn’t go according to plan – when the friends and partners we planned on growing old with leave?”

The cast for this production is first-rate. The three resident company members are reliably excellent. Megan Anderson (Beth) and Beth Hylton (Karen) are, individually, fine actors. Getting to see them perform together is always a joy; this production is no exception. Danny Gavigan (Tom) shines as the catalyst of the quartet’s crisis. And Everyman newcomer M. Scott McLean (Gabe) likewise delivers a commendable performance. Despite this being his first show with the company, McLean’s chemistry with the other actors – particularly his onstage wife, Hylton – is great.

Set Designer Donald Eastman creates a beautiful physical world. Using a rotating stage to optimal effect, Eastman transports us to several locations with such skill that even the bits of set you don’t normally see – the glimpses through windows or open doors rotating past – all fit with the active set. It’s impressive. Completing these discrete settings were the complementary atmospheric elements provided by Sound Designer Sarah O’Halloran and Lighting Designer Harold F. Burgess II. I would like to live in my favorite of the sets – the house on Martha’s Vineyard. The kitchen is tasteful, well-equipped, and spotless; you can hear the ocean lapping, and that golden hour beach sunlight makes everything better, doesn’t it?

The balance of the technical team – Costume Designer David Burdick, Properties Master Jillian Mathews, and Stage Manager Amanda M. Hall – have the kind of jobs that, if done well, you don’t even think about. During the show, I gave them nary a thought. Each has done their jobs so well that everything just seems to fit and run normally. Finally, an appreciative nod goes to Fight/Intimacy Choreographer Lewis Shaw, who had some tricky scenes to choreograph for both fighting and intimacy which, in this script, disturbingly merge.

In fact, I think this play is past its Best By date. Dinner with Friends includes some old tropes I’d really like to stop seeing on our stages. Is a physical struggle accompanied by the line “I could kill you!” that turns into #SuperHotSex still something we want to laugh at in our comedies? Is “rage is an amazing aphrodisiac” still okay dialogue after everything we’ve learned? The play also seems to take a “there are good people on both sides” position on what, to me, was a pretty abusive breakup. The play won Donald Margulies the Pulitzer nearly 20 years ago, but a lot has happened since then. The world we have now is, in part, the result of our culture of laughing off bad behavior.

Beth Hylton and M. Scott McLean in Dinner with Friends. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Beth Hylton and M. Scott McLean in Dinner with Friends. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Lancisi and Everyman consistently curate seasons that showcase women and people of color as playwrights, actors, directors, and production artists. That’s probably why this one caught me off-guard. On the one hand, I understand the choice; the play has good dialogue, realistic characters, and an attractive foodie angle. But it’s not entirely unique in that. This production of Dinner with Friends was great, but so was Everyman’s Aubergine last season, and without the problematic content. More like Aubergine, please.

Dinner with Friends at Everyman Theatre is a well-directed, well-produced piece of theatre. It has all the ingredients of an Everyman show: first-rate actors, high production values, and a hearty helping of clever technical solutions that make theater magic like cooking on stage possible. As productions go, it was delicious. I just needed a palate cleanser afterward to get rid of the taste of the 20th-century sexual entitlement.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.

Dinner with Friends plays through April 7, 2019, at Everyman Theatre – 315 West Fayette Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-2208, or purchase them online.

PARKING:
Available across the street at the Atrium Garage. The cost is $11.00 for those attending the theater.

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